Skip to main content

Heritage Railways and Tramways (Voluntary Work) Bill [HL]

Volume 829: debated on Friday 21 April 2023

Third Reading


Moved by

My Lords, I am conscious that we have a lot of business to consider today, so I shall be brief. I remind the House of my interests as president of the Heritage Railway Association and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail. I am most grateful to the HRA and its members for the help they have given me in drafting this Bill and preparing for the debate.

Your Lordships granted a Second Reading to this Bill on 15 July last year, with all speakers—all Back-Bench speakers, anyway—expressing admiration and support for the heritage rail sector and for the Bill. The Bill seeks to remove statutory restrictions on young people volunteering to work on heritage railways or tramways. All these enterprises provide a stimulus to local employment and tourism, with volunteers making up a very large part of the workforce in almost every case. Many young persons seek to participate in these operations to the benefit of themselves and the operators.

Unfortunately, the law states that those under compulsory school age are barred from working on heritage railways, even on a voluntary basis, as a result of the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920—enacted at a time when heritage railways did not exist. The Bill proposes to overcome the problem by allowing children and young persons within certain age limits to participate in voluntary work on heritage railways and tramways. Section 1(1) of the 1920 Act states:

“No child shall be employed in any industrial undertaking”.

Clause 1 of the Bill would require that to be interpreted not to apply to young people aged 12 or over volunteering on heritage railways or tramways. I beg to move.

My Lords, I did not speak at Second Reading, but I declare an interest as president of the Steam Boat Association. In that respect, I intervene briefly to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for the wonderful work he has done. We have found common cause in trying to maintain coal for our respective interests in steamboats and railways.

This is an important Bill. I do not know what the outcome of it will be, but it is essential that young people should be able to become involved in heritage steam and heritage vehicles of all kinds. It brings discipline and a knowledge of engineering, and it is great fun. One of the best birthday presents I ever got was when I turned 65 and my family arranged for me to drive a steam train. It was fantastic—almost as good as my wedding.

Even if the Bill is not the right way to achieve this purpose, I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that the purpose is very important. It is absolutely fantastic that the noble Lord does so much work in this field, which is so important to tourism and to our economy.

My Lords, I add our thanks to my noble friend Lord Faulkner, who has piloted the Bill. I regret that I could not find a relevant interest to confess at this point, but I commend those who have. I add my hope that Lady Forsyth has a forgiving nature when she comes to read Hansard.

Our heritage railways are a joy and a blessing to the nation, as well as a big contributor to the economy. It would certainly be a shame if children and young people were prevented engaging safely in voluntary activity down to legislation from a time when heritage railways were simply railways. In the earlier stages, the Government seemed confident that there is no legislative barrier. That is not completely accepted around the table, so I hope that the Minister is able to give some reassurance to my noble friend and that discussions are carrying on to make sure that this can happen. I am happy to wait to hear what the Minister has to say.

My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for bringing this debate to the House for the fourth time, for which he is to be applauded. I agree with him that it is important to protect heritage railways for future generations.

Modern health and safety legislation—in particular the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and relevant secondary legislation—does not prevent children and young people volunteering on heritage railways or tramways. The current legislative framework already allows for this to happen. However, it is important that such activities are carried out in a safe way with employers, organisers and those supervising the activities making sure that any risks are properly controlled.

The Government support volunteers and volunteering; to that extent, I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Forsyth. It can be a rewarding experience for young people, and it allows them to gain new skills and make a difference in their community. Volunteering is vital for the future sustainability of the heritage rail sector, with more than 22,000 people, 800 of them young people, giving their time to support heritage railway organisations across the country.

At Second Reading, my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott, offered to bring officials from the Health and Safety Executive, the Office of Rail and Road, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, together with the Heritage Railway Association to discuss how its guidance can be further strengthened. Unfortunately, unforeseen circumstances prevented this meeting happening, but I would very much like to make this offer again.

Under the 1974 Act, duty holders are required to control the risks they create from their operation. Although the Health and Safety Executive has the policy responsibility for the 1920 Act, in the case of heritage railways, the Office of Rail and Road is the regulator for health and safety legislation. Both regulators have confirmed that they would not enforce the 1920 Act solely to prevent young people volunteering on heritage railways. It has not been used in a prosecution since 2009 and, when it was, it was used alongside more modern health and safety legislation to prosecute in cases where young people were employed illegally in dangerous environments. In total, the 1920 Act has been enforced on eight occasions since 1998, and none of these prosecutions was against a heritage railway.

The law protecting children in the UK is a complex area, and this Bill would have implications not only on health and safety protections but on education legislation and local authority by-laws. To repeal or amend the 1920 Act may initially seem the best course of action; however, because of the links to other legislation, the process of making changes would be extensive. There is no evidence that this legislative change would make a difference to the number of young people volunteering, and therefore it is not proportionate to proceed with it.

I promised also to be relatively short, so I conclude by saying that the Bill seeks to allow children to gain valuable experiences volunteering on heritage railways and tramways, and the Government support this aim. However, we believe that the current legislative framework does just that. Nothing would be gained from a change to legislation when other, simpler and more effective options are available—in particular, working with the regulators to explore the types of activities and tasks that are proportionate for young volunteers.

At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, remained concerned about what would happen should something go wrong with a young person working as a volunteer, and he wanted stronger guarantees in relation to the 1920 Act. I want to reassure him that if such an incident occurred, both the Health and Safety Executive and the Office of Rail and Road have confirmed that there would be a full investigation, taking account of the risks that the young person was exposed to and how they were controlled. The existing framework is fair and effective, which is why, unfortunately, the Government oppose the Bill.

My Lords, I express my warmest thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for his kind and extremely generous remarks, which are not entirely justified, I am sure. It is very kind of him to say all those nice things. I also thank my noble friend Lady Sherlock for her generous comments.

The response from the Minister is all right as far as it goes—but there is a “but”. I accept absolutely the assurance that the ORR and the Health and Safety Executive have given that they have no intention of using the 1920 Act to prosecute in the case of young people on heritage railways. But the point that needs to be considered is what happens if something goes wrong that forces them to take a different view and may cause the provisions of that Act to apply. I have had a letter this week from the CEO of the Heritage Railway Association, Steve Oates, who said,

“I know of some railways who are not convinced. If it’s unlawful, it’s unlawful and the risk of prosecution or refusal of insurance cover, however remote, remains”.

That is also the view of the former legal adviser to the Department for Transport, Geoffrey Claydon CB, who wrote to me on Wednesday. He said:

“The Government are relying on the fact that HSE and ORR have said that they would not prosecute for any infringement of the 1920 Act in relation to young persons. But this ignores the possibility of private prosecutions, prosecutions by local authorities and insurers refusing to meet any claims on the basis that the law has not been followed”.

My Bill removes that element of doubt, and I urge the House to pass it this morning and send it to the other place.

In the meantime, I will take up with great pleasure the offer of the meeting that the Minister outlined; I hope that we are able to come to a satisfactory conclusion there. For now, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.